Styrofoam or polystyrene has been a controversial product for years due to its negative impact on the environment. Aside from taking over 500 years to decompose, it also releases harmful chemicals into the environment during this process.
But recently, polystyrene has actually been converted into a valuable chemical found in algae simply by exposing it to sunlight.
When Styrofoam breaks down, it produces DPM, or diphenylmethane, a molecule found in aquatic plants that is commonly used in polymer manufacturing, drug development, and even in cosmetics and fragrances. It’s also considered a resilient plastic, found in almost everything from food containers to TV packaging.
Additionally, Styrofoam isn’t recycled all that often because it’s an incredibly complex and costly process. And there are also difficulties that arise from collecting the discarded styrofoam.
However, scientists have recently managed to break it down using an inexpensive and simple technique using a chemical catalyst and UV or ultraviolet rays.
Since the market price of DPM is ten times higher than other materials currently made from polystyrene, the market incentive is also factored into the process. In addition, other valuable chemicals are produced alongside DPM, including benzophenone, which is used as a clear coat in the film and printing industries, and 4-oxo-4-phenylbutyric acid.
The paper’s lead author, Professor Greg Liu of Virginia Tech, explains, “Many city recycling facilities instruct residents not to throw polystyrene in their home recycling bins. Currently, the main process for recycling polystyrene yields a product that is often too inferior to make the process economical.”
He adds “In other words, if a recycling facility is trying to recycle polystyrene on a large scale, they either need a financial boost, such as a A government grant, for example, or the business runs the risk of running out of money and being closed.”
The study, which the VA Tech team published in PNAS, demonstrated the technology, including economic viability insights they gathered from consulting business experts from Dongbei University in China and Santa Clara University in California.
According to the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, 1.15 billion polystyrene food and drink containers were sold in England in 2019. But unlike most plastics – especially the biodegradable ones made today – they can remain intact for more than 1,000 years, while their presence in the environment has been linked to a range of diseases, including some cancers.
In particular, when they are exposed to UV light, they actually become weakened. Researchers demonstrated how sunlight chemically degrades polystyrene. While this underscores the possibility of recycling methods, it can also cause a different kind of damage when it comes to the oceans, as it can break down into microplastics, which is already a major global problem.
In fact, Scotland has even banned the sale of single-use polystyrene food containers for this particular reason.
Professor Liu says “Many of us throw a metal can or glass jar into the recycling bin without hesitation. Not every recycling plant is equipped for every type of plastic. This is because the chemistry and structure of plastic materials is different and each type requires a specific recycling process.”
“At Virginia Tech, we can add a small piece to the big puzzle and provide solutions that make a positive difference in the world,” he adds.
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